Thirteen months ago I bought my first Elmore Leonard novel, in Cleveland, his kind of place. Since then I have read 10 others. Recently a newspaper story announced his new novel, "Glitz." I put down my sandwich and drove to a bookstore. It was a peanut butter and pickle sandwich, so you know Leonard is good.
Today he is taking lunch in style, at the Manhattan Ocean Club. You say good news never gets into newspapers? Read on. Last week, after publishing 23 novels in 32 years, he finally made the New York Times best- seller list, just barely, in 15th place. This week he is seventh. His good luck is good news because luck had nothing to do with it. Craftmanship has been rewarded.
Leonard lives in Birmingham, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, the city where some of his stories are set. The description of Detroit as "Cleveland without the glitter" could come from his novels. Detroit is not Bloomsbury but Leonard, 59, with a gray beard and a wardrobe consisting mainly of a tweed jacket, says he is not an artist, just an entertainer.
His books are not exactly crime novels, although crimes occur and guns go off. The novels are about marginal people, small people incompetent at petty crime, or quiet professionals who, like Leonard, are underestimated for a long time. There are no verbal flourishes, no arresting descriptions, but his style is as strong and personal as Van Gogh's brush strokes. He has perfect pitch for the street talk you might hear from armed robbers who are not very good at armed robbery.
Assistant professors being what they are, there are turgid essays thick with coagulated paragraphs about such novels as sublimations of the class struggle. I recently read (well, started to) an essay that says detective stories are popular because secret crime and subsequent discovery are associated in the reader's subconsciousness with (I am not making this up; I could not) the "primal scene," a psychoanalytic term referring to a child's imagining of sexual intercourse between his parents.
Leonard, too, has suffered overinterpretation. A reviewer once said of him: "The aesthetic sub-text of his work is the systematic exposure of aesthetic pretension." Leonard retaliated. In his novel "LaBrava," the protagonist, a photographer, refers to an exhibition of his pictures: "The review in the paper said, 'The aesthetic sub-text of his work is the systematic exposure of aesthetic pretension.' I thought I was just taking pictures."
Leonard's insistence that he is just a story-teller expresses pride, not humility. He has a craftsman's pride that being a fine craftsman is good enough, thank you.
He sold his first fiction in 1951, to Argosy magazine, and his first novel, a western, in 1953. His mother wishes he were still writing westerns because the language would be less gamy. Until he sold his novel "Hombre" (voted one of the 25 best westerns of all time by the Western Writers of America) to Hollywood, he had to work full-time writing advertising copy. Well, Wallace Stevens worked in an insurance office, T. S. Eliot at a bank, Anthony Trollope at the post office.
After "Hombre," Leonard stopped writing westerns and started making books the way a custom cobbler makes shoes: steadily, with no wasted motion. He writes from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
He has been called the Dickens of Detroit because of the colorful characters he creates from the seamier side of life. But he reminds me of Trollope. This is not, Lord knows, because of his subjects -- there are no Pallisers in his pages -- but because of his approach to his craft.
Trollope kept a meticulous diary of the pages he wrote. He noted that such discipline is considered beneath a man of genius. But, he said cheerfully, not being a genius, he had to be disciplined. You say that anyone who works with his imagination should wait for inspiration? Trollope said it would be just as absurd to say that a shoemaker should wait for inspiration. Writers, he said, should sit themselves at their desks as though they were clerks, and should sit until their daily writing quota is filled. If they adopt his quota, they will produce a book in four months.
Leonard's "sudden" success -- he is an "overnight sensation" after 32 years of hard plugging -- is a tribute to America, where people are not homogenized, and cream rises. If you want a sip of the cream, start with his novel "Swag" and then read "Stick." Then, if you are not hooked, go watch television. It will serve you right.